1945 Project

Human Rights Then and Now

Acknowledging the Unacknowledged: A Study of the Crime of Genocide and the Laws and Actions that Persecute it in the Twentieth Century.

A review of Power, Samantha. 2002. A problem from hell: America and the age of genocide. New York: Basic Books.

Sean Lindsey


March 8th, 2019

       The book, “A Problem from Hell” America and the Age of Genocide, by former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and Harvard professor Samantha Powers, is presented as a well-informed journalistic and at times a historical account of genocide in the 21st century. Powers starts the book by taking the reader through the historical atrocities that led Human Rights crusaders like Raphael Lemkin to not only invent the term genocide, but make the crime recognized by the International Community after the horrors of the Second World War. In doing so she provides the basis and understanding that led to the formulating of the international law intended to persecute and prevent future genocides. The historical context of these laws; chiefly the genocide convention is then used to examine the roles and failures of the International Community and the United States during the atrocities committed after they had sworn too never let them happen again. Powers does this by providing an in-depth historical/journalistic analysis of the warning signs and the international communities actions taken during the Genocides that occurred in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. Through her analysis Powers is able to paint a picture of how Genocide has been allowed to occur post World War Two and how Raphael Lemkin and those who took up the cause to prevent genocide. Ultimately revealing, “A consistent policy of non-intervention in the face of genocide [that] offers sad testimony, not too a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective.”

        Chapter 4 of Samantha Power’s book aptly titled, “Lempkin’s Law” Establishes both the historical context leading up to the genocide convention, while also clearly demonstrating the ongoing challenges that would persist in the formation and implementation of international law intended to prevent and persecute Genocide. The chapter sets the stage for the uphill battle international law would face when confronted with atrocities by beginning with the Nuremberg trials. She recounts the endless effort of Human Rights Advocate Raphael Lemkin too include the crime of genocide in the prosecution of the Nazi war criminals on trial.  Lempkin, who had just recently coined the term genocide believed, “naming the crime was just a first step along the road to banning it,” and that it would take genocides recognition under the law for it to be prevented. Though he was successful in including Genocide in the charges filed against the war criminals they were ultimately not convicted of it. The failure to convict and Powers recount of Lempkin’s fight for the passage of the Genocide Convention by the United Nations highlights one of the main problem seen in other later chapters analyzing future atrocities. This problem is an unwillingness by the International community to acknowledge the horrors of genocide due to fears that by acknowledging it they would be forced to act or even worse prosecuted for the very crime.

           Throughout the book, Samantha Powers demonstrates the ability of the United States and the International Community to prevent genocide but how their unwillingness and willful ignorance have allowed them to occur. She provides ample evidence both in the cases of Iraq and Cambodia of warning signs of atrocities to come and confirmation of them when they do. She then shows how despite the best efforts of a few, a policy of inaction prevails. In each case presented in the book instance after instance short-term gains and fear, short-term losses have taken priority while thousands are murdered. Thousands of murders that were not prevented, not from a failure of knowledge but from a political system, “that in good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract will simultaneously opposing involvement in the moment.”

         Samantha Power’s book accomplishes an in-depth overview of the historical context of the formation of international law on the crime of Genocide and both law and policy makers limitations when confronted with genocide in the Twenty-First Century. Her extensive research and the compelling way she communicates her message through the personal stories of Raphael Lemkin and William Proxmire provide a relatable medium that can resonate with all audiences. Professor Dipak K. Gupta from the University of Sandiego hail’s Power’s for her ability to put forward a comparative historical analysis of the Genocide Convention to more modern cases such in Serbia and Cambodia. Anthony Holden in The Guardian applauds the former ambassador’s ability to provide a subsequent narrative of the international communities grappling with Genocide from Armenia to modern-day Serbia. Power’s book even though it acknowledges the shortcomings of the United States in the past to intervene falls short in condemning the United States military action in Afghanistan and warmongering for intervention in Iraq. Power’s ascribes intervention action to prevent atrocities but overlooks the repercussions of ill-conceived foreign intervention such as Vietnam or nefariously intended as would be Iraq.  



Gupta, Dipak K. Political Science Quarterly 117, no. 4 (2002): 694-96.



Holden, Anthony. “Observer Review: A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power.” The

Guardian. June 29,

  1. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/jun/29/highereducation.news.


Power, Samantha. 2002. A problem from hell: America and the age of genocide. New

York: Basic Books.




A Problem from Hell: America and BOOK REVIEWS | 695 cide or justify inaction by stating that there was nothing they could have done. As if to correct the first mistake of the past, in 1992 UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his Agenda for Peace called for systematic efforts to- ward developing early warning systems for humanitarian catastrophes. A good deal of scholarly research and money followed his call to develop a system that would forewarn the world about an impending crisis. Samantha Power, by skillfully narrating the horrendous stories of human cruelty and savagery from a number of genocides around the world, dispels both the arguments for inaction. As unspeakable as these crimes against hu- manity are, the most insidious finding of her painstaking work is that the succes- sive United States administrations not only had full knowledge of the events as they were unfolding, but also supported the genocidal regimes (in Iraq against the Kurds, Pakistan against the Bengalis, and Indonesia against the “commu- nist” insurgents), or had indirectly created the conditions under which genocide could take place (Cambodia, Bosnia), or made every attempt at ignoring the hellish problem as long as they possibly could (Turkey, Rwanda). No U.S. pres- ident of the twentieth century escapes blame for directly or indirectly contribut- ing to the causes of genocide. Scorn is particularly strident for Bill Clinton for his role in allowing the Rwandan genocide to take place. Most administration insiders and other world leaders, including the heads of the United Nations, share culpability. A number of individuals, such as Raphael Lamkin, a Polish Jew and an international scholar who first coined the term “genocide,” worked tirelessly to bring concerted action against mass slaughter of innocent civilians. So did Senator William Proxmire. However, their hard work and good inten- tions were no match for the institutional forces that prevented the United States from taking a moral position in foreign policy. Power’s passionate work is a call to arms to exhort U.S. leaders into active intervention in the world of fratricidal frenzy. The most reassuring part of this book demonstrates how little it often takes for the United States to stop mass murder by genocidal regimes. She convincingly argues that a timely interven- tion could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Rwanda. For all their strength, Power’s arguments for U.S. humanitarian interven- tion suffer from some crucial shortcomings. First, the term “genocide,” like por- nography, remains nearly impossible to define. If we strictly adhere to the key terms of the 1948 genocide convention, then does the current U.S. embargo on Iraq, which is taking its horrible toll on innocent children, not qualify as a geno- cidal act? Alas, such is the nature of moral ambiguity. Second, the motivations for U.S. noninterventionist policies rest on the same reason why so many wor- thy policies from global environmental causes fail to make headway through the labyrinth of the congressional legislative processes. The benefits are diffuse among the multitude and the costs on specific targets (the military and the poli- ticians, if the humanitarian intervention fails, regardless of the moral impera- tives), remain outside of the institutional agenda. Third, and perhaps less conse- quentially, Power somewhat overstates her case in the title of the book. The This content downloaded from on Sat, 09 Mar 2019 03:16:50 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 696 1 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY twentieth century did not invent genocide; it simply found a term for it. How- ever, Samantha Power’s book should not be judged by the pragmatic reasons why we might fail to act the next time the world faces yet another humanitarian catastrophe. Her work should be judged for what it inspires us to do, regardless of the odds. DIPAK K. GUPTA San Diego State Univers


A blind eye to genocide

Through its non-intervention, the US has been complicit in the deaths of millions, claims Samantha Power in A Problem from Hell. Anthony Holden weighs the evidence

Anthony Holden

Sat 28 Jun 2003 22.31 EDTFirst published on Sat 28 Jun 2003 22.31 EDT

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

by Samantha Power

pp656, Flamingo, £9.99

The word ‘genocide’ was coined as recently as 1946 by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin, only four of whose 50-plus relatives survived the Holocaust. He became a major player in the framing and adoption of the United Nations Convention on its ‘prevention and punishment’, passed in 1948 but not ratified by the United States for another 40 years, and then only with an ‘à la carte’ opt-out clause.

Lemkin’s story is told in fascinating detail by Samantha Power, an Irish-born, American-based journalist-turned-academic, and lies at the heart of this important book, a superb piece of reporting which cumulatively grows into a major political work, part polemic, part moral philosophy.

Power continues Lemkin’s mission by chronicling all the major twentieth-century acts of genocide in truly horrifying detail, while seeking to establish exactly how much the US administration of the day knew about what was going on as it invariably managed to avoid getting involved.

‘The United States has never in its history intervened to stop genocide,’ she concludes, ‘and has, in fact, rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.’

Taking her title from Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s tortured circumlocutions about Bosnia, Power accuses US Presidents since Woodrow Wilson of ‘considered political inaction’ costing millions of innocent lives abroad while losing not a single vote back home.

An extreme case is, of course, currently being unearthed – all too literally – in Iraq, where every week sees the discovery of new mass graves and the exhumation of the victims of Saddam Hussein’s Shia and Kurdish purges. With characteristic boldness, and detail so meticulous as to defy refutation, Power shows that Presidents Reagan and Bush (the first) were, meanwhile, raising levels of US aid to Saddam for a variety of self-interested, if deluded, reasons.

Her passionate interest in genocide was sparked by her baffled indignation as a young foreign correspondent at the Clinton administration’s reluctance to intervene in the slaughter of 200,000 Bosnians between 1992 and 1995. The Western powers which looked away or sat on their hands were the same ones then opening Holocaust museums and solemnly promising (in Clinton’s hollow words): ‘Never again.’

Starting with the Turkish massacre of the Armenians in 1915, Power proceeds via Cambodia, Iraq and the Balkans to the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi and Hutus in Rwanda in just 100 days in 1994. Each case is examined in brutally exhaustive detail, almost defying the reader to proceed without a sense of collective guilt at the consequences of inaction, not just from the US, her central target, but among its supposedly civilised Western allies.

She identifies heroic protesters, invariably as ignored or reviled as Cassandra, while revealing astonishing evidence, much of it new, of just how much the US government of the day knew, whatever it may have said at the time.

The eventual intervention in Kosovo and the subsequent trial of Milosevic are the ‘sole exceptions which prove the rule’, and may yet come to be seen as ‘high-water marks in genocide prevention and punishment’. Otherwise, throughout the twentieth century as throughout history, genocide has all too often been seen by foreign powers as beyond their remit, an internal matter for the country concerned. Reports from the front, by survivors, refugees or courageous journalists and diplomats, have been ignored or discredited.

In the case of the US, as Power argues even more powerfully than we already knew, any overseas adventures have been dictated solely by national self-interest, usually more economic than moral. To this day, there are disagreements over the precise definition of genocide, flouting the UN declaration and largely designed to dodge any moral imperative to intervene.

Pre-Lemkin, and to a shameful extent since, national governments have been left free to treat their own citizens as they choose, ethnic cleansing being as much (or as little) a matter for foreign interference as any other domestic policy. Power’s litany from the last century alone makes highly uncomfortable reading for the world conscience: beyond the tens of millions dead in the Holocaust and those other, more familiar examples, she cites the Hausa slaughter of the Ibo in Nigeria in 1968 (a million dead), West Pakistan’s culling of East Pakistan Bengalis in 1971 (up to two million), Tutsi versus Hutu in 1972 (150,000).

Amid her righteous anger, Power unwittingly allies herself with the neo-conservatives now calling the shots in Washington, with such apparent influence on our own moral crusader of a Prime Minister. Many of her arguments are uncomfortably unilateralist; she does not specifically say so, but they tend towards the kind of intervention which recently took place in Iraq, if too late and for all the wrong reasons. The US, she says, ‘has a duty to act’, if necessary ‘to risk the lives of its soldiers in stopping this monstrous crime’.

A world in which Bush Junior’s America plays moral policeman and goes in shooting on its own self-interested evidence is not a world with much appeal to its supposed allies among other Western democracies. A world in which the US stops dodging its international responsibilities, signs up to such global initiatives as the World Court, and helps build a stronger UN to enforce such laws as its charter against genocide, is a very different matter.

Power’s book makes a major contribution to that debate and is required reading for anyone inclined to take part.


Textual Primary Source Analysis of the Formulation of the Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nurnberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal

1. Formulation of the Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nurnberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal- English
2. Created by the United Nations Sub-committee: International Law Commission.

Archive number: A/CN.4/W.12

Web URL:https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/DER/NL4/915/57/PDF/NL491557.pdf?OpenElement



Original photocopy of text recommended by the International Law Commission Sub-Committee of the United Nations on the Formulation of the Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nurnberg Tribunal and in the Judgement of the Tribunal to the first session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.


Unique Physical Characteristics of the document are as follows: Original document of the International Law Commission Sub-Committee of the United Nations 1949 recommendations of what would later come to be the accepted Nurnberg Principles by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950, written by typewriter, letterhead includes the notice RESTRICTED, Pen Markings on the left side of letterhead, partially illegible stamp marking directly below the right side of letterhead that reads “MASTER..”, inclusion of the United Nations Library card catalog within the photo-copied document.

5. DATE(S) OF DOCUMENT: May 31st, 1949
6. AUTHOR (OR CREATOR) OF THE DOCUMENT; POSITION (TITLE): International Law Commission Sub-Committee of the United Nations
7. FOR WHICH AUDIENCE WAS THE DOCUMENT WRITTEN? Intended solely for the members of the United Nations General Assembly’s first session.

a)     List three things the author said that you think are important.

1.     The inclusion of the word Formulation within the title of the document indicate the process of how the Nurnberg Principles would be eventually accepted by the General Assembly a year later. This process is developed through a Sub-Committee then proposed to the General Assembly

2.     The author’s unwillingness to extend the jurisdiction of International Law for the same crimes listed within the accused own nation. This is important because it shows the limitations of International Law.

3.     Allowing for the prosecution of not only the direct perpetrators but those deemed of being accomplices marks a monumental change in International Law by holding those indirectly involved or complicit for said crimes.

b)     Why do you think this document was written?

This document was created to both justify the authority of the international community for its prosecution of war crimes during the Nurnberg Tribunals and lay the basis for future international law.

c)     What evidence in the document helps you know why it was written? Quote from the document.

The document provides multiple examples of evidence on the purpose of its creation. The first of this evidence is in who the Author’s where and their word choice. The document was created by International Law Commission Sub-Committee of the United Nations, a committee tasked with the formulation of what would be the standard of international law for the international United Nations. The word choice made by the authors when creating this text such as “formulation”, “recognized”, and “recommended” indicate that the content of this document had been accepted in the prosecution of the Nurnberg Tribunals and is being recommended for future use. Lastly, the inclusion of legal precedents and procedures used during the Nurnberg Tribunals such as the prosecutions ability to hold responsible accomplices, and the accused right to a defense indicate that this document was intended to reaffirm the International Community’s authority to prosecute those convicted in the Tribunals.

d)     List two things the document tells you about life in the place and at the time it was written.

This document tells the reader of what both the Author’s and the members of the United Nation thought was the new place and authority international law would hold in the world post World War Two. Lastly, it shows the International Communities unwillingness to prosecute said crimes that a nation might commit against their own citizens thereby showing the fear that these principles might be used one day to prosecute the Allies for past transgressions and in the future.

e)     Write a question for audiences today that is left unanswered by the document.

Why do think the Author’s were unwilling to extend the jurisdiction of prosecution of international law to said crimes committed by towards a nation’s own citizens?

9. Sean Lindsey, University of Oklahoma, Feb 28th, 2019

Battle of Britain Monument

The Battle of Britain London Memorial

Date Completed: September 18th, 2005. The Sixty-Fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

Geography: London, England

Culture: English

Medium: Bronze, and concrete.

Dimensions: 25 feet wide

Classification: Sculpture

Ownership: Paid for by donations from governments from around the world. It is now property of the public realm, however the Battle of Britain Historical Society planned and maintains it.

Description and History: The Battle of Britain Memorial London was sculpted by Paul Day. Made from bronze the memorial sits ground level to bring onlookers eye to eye with the horrific and heroic moments experienced by those Londoners that lived through the Battle of Britain. Focusing on those who took part in the battle the monument pays homage not only to airman but also to mechanics, lookouts, and women as well. In doing so the Battle of Britain Memorial displays the uniting struggle of the blitz for the United Kingdom as a whole and fortitude of London’s defenders.

Further Reading: 

Eight Things to Know about the Battle of Britain

Civilians on the Frontline

Children of the Wartime Evacuation

From Depression to Victory

Author: Sean Lindsey, Undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma


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